Free online high schools are becoming increasingly common. Less than three years ago, a student would have to look far and wide to find a program that was not either a commercial school or a university-based school. While both were good choices then and are good choices now, what has emerged over the last few years is another option.
What are they?
There are three basic kinds of free online high schools. They are:
1. Charter schools
2. Department of Education-sponsored or school-district-sponsored schools
3. Corporate-sponsored, but state-approved schools
With the growth in charter schools, has come a growth in online charter schools. While still relative small in number, look for this segment to grow.
When a state department of education offers a free online high school, most often it does not offer a diploma track. Typically, the reasoning behind such schools is to offer courses to all schools within the state that a particular high school may not be able to provide. For example, Alabama Online High School offers Advanced Placement classes online because it is a state with many small towns and an inability to have AP programs in all of those towns.
Finally, those corporate-sponsored programs are sometimes a mixture. For example, a company, like K12.com, offers online high schools through an arrangement with a state department of education. Sometimes these schools are charter schools and sometimes they are state-sponsored.
What should you look for?
Like all online high schools, you should look for regional or national accreditation as the first hallmark of legitimacy. You can find official accreditors at CHEA.org. Failing that, sponsorship by a state department of education or a school district may be reasonable, but you will want to ask the school about its accreditation goals.
Another thing to look at is the teaching. Are the teachers experienced not only teaching their subject area, but also in teaching online? Anyone who tells you that they have experienced teachers, but the teachers have not taught a course via distance learning, doesn't understand what they are talking about. Yes, it is not an awful thing to have new online instructors, but the hope is that there is a mix of new and experienced. Increasingly, it is possible to find experienced teachers online high school courses.
Finally, what does the program look like? If it looks like they took pencil-and-paper courses and dumped them onto the Internet, then walk away. While there are many ways to develop an online course, that is not one of them. A good course should have a mixture of audio, video, forums, links, and much more. Anything less and the student will likely lose interest quickly.
Here is my most important piece of advice: Unless you have no other choice, don't choose a school solely because it is free. Not surprisingly, you may still get what you pay for.